On a fateful Wednesday, March 15th, 24 years ago, the City of New Orleans train, operated by Amtrak, met with a devastating fate. It was a dark day for Bourbonnais, as 11 innocent lives were lost, and 122 more were left injured in the aftermath of this gruesome train wreck. As the world remembers this tragic incident, join us in a somber reflection on the memories and lessons we have learned from Kankakee County’s train accidents spanning from 1885 to 2023.
The “City of New Orleans,” once an icon of travel luxury and nostalgia, became a scene of horror and chaos on that fateful day. The train, packed with 216 passengers and crew members, was hurtling towards New Orleans from Chicago, tracing the historic route of the Illinois Central Railroad. But fate had a different plan in store.
As the train approached Bourbonnais, a massive truck carrying a colossal load of steel from the Birmingham Steel Co. crossed its path. The two vehicles collided in a catastrophic impact that shook the ground beneath them. Metal twisted and crumpled, shattering the peace of the tranquil Illinois countryside.
The force of the collision was immense, derailing two locomotives and 11 of the 14 rail cars. The six empty cars offered little relief to the passengers as they were thrown from their seats, tossed about like rag dolls. The aftermath of the accident left 11 people dead and 122 others severely injured, with many more shaken to the core.
The driver of the truck involved in the Amtrak “City of New Orleans” train accident, John Stokes, was found guilty of driving past activated railroad warning signals and onto the tracks. The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to Stokes’ fatigue and inappropriate response to the grade crossing warning devices. Stokes was sentenced to two years in prison and passed away in 2007.
Tragically, the Amtrak “City of New Orleans” wreck claimed the lives of 11 passengers. Among the victims were the Vant family from Bremerton, Washington, along with their friend Helena Adkins. Also lost were June Bonin from Mississippi and her granddaughters Lacey and Rainey Lipscomb, as well as their friend Jessica Whitaker, Sheena Dowe of Mississippi, Marie Munson of Mount Prospect, and Keiichi Nomura of Japan.
A year later, in March 2000, the village paid tribute to the victims of the tragic train wreck by erecting a solemn statue called the “Children’s Memorial.” The statue was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the accident, as well as to the local residents who passed away during their childhood. The walkway at South Main Street also bears bricks engraved with the names of the loved ones lost, preserving their memory for future generations to come.
Other Local Train Accidents Remember:
Kankakee County’s railway history began with a violent and tragic incident. On February 24, 1885, chaos erupted when a freight train plowed into the rear of the Illinois Central’s New Orleans passenger train and Centralia passenger train. Amid the deafening crash, J.H. McGinnis lost his life, and nine others suffered severe burns from scorching steam that engulfed the scene. It was a catastrophic and harrowing event that left a lasting mark on the community.
Five years later, on a fateful November day in 1890, Kankakee County witnessed another horrific train accident that shook the town to its core. The Illinois Central’s fast mail train was on a collision course with the New Orleans express train, hurtling towards each other at breakneck speeds. The resulting crash claimed the life of fireman William Hosler and left engineer Ed Barker crippled for life. The shocking incident was later found to be the fault of switch-tender Pat O’Neil, whose catastrophic mistake caused the fast train to plow into the New Orleans train, leaving behind a trail of destruction and despair.
The County was struck with two more catastrophic train wrecks in 1893, just three days apart. The first occurred on October 19, when the Illinois Central’s New Orleans Limited passenger train collided head-on with a coal train, leaving eight people with severe injuries. Days later, on October 22, a New Orleans Limited train derailed in Kankakee, causing chaos and panic amongst the packed passengers. Though only a few people were injured, the horror of the accident would not be soon forgotten.
On June 11, 1971, tragedy struck Kankakee County in the form of the most catastrophic train wreck the area had ever seen. The legendary City of New Orleans train was on its fateful journey when disaster struck. A mechanical failure in the train’s rear axle caused the derailment that claimed 11 lives and left 100 others injured. The community was left reeling from the loss and devastation of that tragic day.
While the 1999 deadly crash of the southbound Illinois Central train to New Orleans at Bourbonnais may be the most well-known train wreck in Kankakee County, it is clear that it was not the first time a train with that name crashed in the area. These previous incidents serve as a reminder of the dangers associated with train travel and the importance of safety measures.
The tragedies that have befallen the City of New Orleans over the years are a somber reminder of the risks involved in travel by rail. However, they also serve as a reminder of the bravery and dedication of first responders and healthcare professionals who work tirelessly to help those in need during times of crisis. As we remember the victims of the Bourbonnais train wreck, let us also remember those who worked to save lives on that fateful night and honor their sacrifice.